Here’s the thing: I had never really heard of this city until about a little over a month ago, as I searched Ryanair’s flight schedules for someplace new and exciting. Oftentime passed up in the minds of Americans for the capital city (and primary Portuguese bell-ringer) Lisbon, this is actually one of the most utterly magnificent places I’ve ever had the pleasure of touring. The little city on the Douro is renowned for its production of port wine, hills steeper than a double espresso, and blue and white azulelejo tiles flocking the buildings all over town.
Language: Portuguese, although Spanish and English are understood by mostly everyone. I also heard some French thrown in, if that’s your forté.
Tap water: I read one report online about someone getting sick, but I brushed my teeth with it every day and was good to go.
Open Container Laws: According to the internet and personal observation, if you’re not a sloppy jerk stumbling around like a dang fool, you’re fine. I didn’t exactly see people walking down the street slurping down wine, but I did see quiet circles of friends sitting as quintessentially as can be passing around bottles and enjoying the day.
Car? Only if you want to fall down the side of a hill or sideswipe something. Walking is difficult enough in Porto, and a lot of streets are one-way due to cars not being able to climb the hills. Also, there’s a very simple metro system (printed handily on maps that are distributed for free at the arrivals hall of the airport) for destinations too far to traverse on foot.
WiFi: In many areas around the city center on the North Bank of the Douro, WiFi is free and open to the public! Many cafés do not have a connection, preferring for guests to enjoy their surroundings and company rather than stare into their phones, but many places do offer WiFi as well. It’s a safe bet that your hotel, hostel, or vacation rental will be equipped with a connection. Also, the double-decker sightseeing busses all around town have free, open connections, so when they park, you can grab a quick connection if you’re in the vicinity.
Goodbye–Até a vista (ah-tay ah vee-sta)
Thank you–Obrigado (oh-bree-ga-doh, and extra points if you roll the R)
The most common method of coming to Porto is by plane, landing at Francisco de Sá Carneiro International Airport (OPO). Skyteam flights don’t operate in or out of OPO (lending to my ignorance of this gem of a destination), but Star Alliance airlines such as TAP Portugal and Lufthansa do. Primarily, though, it appeared that Porto was locked down by Ryanair and Easyjet, two smaller European airlines catering to those looking to travel on a budget.
In the hills of the city center and Old Town Porto as well as on both sides of the Douro River (Rio Douro in Portuguese), I noticed countless places to stay ranging in levels of fanfare: from budget-friendly hostels for the freewheelin’ traveler to opulent hotels dripping with elegance for those who are in full TREATYOSELF mode. I rented an Airbnb (as I am partial to doing) for a price that, at the time of booking, I thought seemed low for the size and beauty of the place in the pictures, and figured it was too good to be true. Getting to the apartment and discovering that I was, delightfully, standing in the exact place depicted in my iPhone app, I came to the bubbly realization that accommodations in Porto are ridiculously inexpensive.
Okay. Porto, Portugal is the port wine capital of the world. I mean, “port” is in the name TWICE. Most people go to Italy or France for fine wine, and that’s a shame, because an authentic Portuguese tawny wine that I bought for €6 is literally the best wine I have ever had. I am by no means exaggerating. But don’t worry! If you’re a teetotaler or a young buck, Porto isn’t out of the cards for you. There’s plenty to see, do, and enjoy in this amazing city.
FOR THOSE (AGED 18+) WHO AREN’T SOBER
Wine, wine, wine. This is a given, yes, but I can’t say it enough. In the States, a bottle that doesn’t taste like complete garbage will run you at least $8. In Porto, I picked up a bottle of local rosé from the well- and diversely-stocked shelf of a produce market (a produce market!) for €1.67. That’s two United States dollars and twenty-three cents. Let that sink in for a minute. The cherry on top of this was that it was good, too. Pick up a bottle, go down to the Ribeira or the park (more on that in a moment), and let your brain melt into a carefree shade of satisfied jubilance in the sunshine. You earned it.
-Tour a wine cave. These tours are all along the south bank of the Douro, facing opposite the hilly, historical Old Town. This strip is called the Riberia de Gaia, and can be accessed either by metro or by foot across the Ponte Luís, the steel bridge towering stoically over the Douro. There are five bridges, but this is the most popular as it connects the Old Town to the Ribeira de Gaia for pedestrians. Wineries dot the sidelines of the Douro, and you can pretty much take your pick of which one you want to try (or do all of them!), as they’re all priced around five to seven euros per person and are offered in several different languages. The tours last about twenty minutes and are finished off with a tasting of the wines from that specific winery, with an option to purchase more wine at the very end. I personally toured Cálem and for €5, got four glasses of wine, some excellent conversation with those on the tour and tasting alongside me, and bought four bottles of authentic, local wine produced by Cálem for a mere €30.
-As mentioned previously, there are double-decker sightseeing busses that roll around town. You can catch them at any stop and also get off wherever you’d like. A sign pointed a daily tour to be €13.
-Boat tour of the Douro. This 50-minute boat ride is the best way to truly experience the majesty of the Rio Douro and all five of its bridges. Tickets can be purchased at several kiosks around the riverfront, as well as little red “Tourist Offices” within the city center. A timetable of all the sailings is posted as well, but I can already tell you that you’re going to want to take the 19:30 sailing. Just trust me. (Note: if you have a few days on your hands, there are boat tours that span several days and float down to the wineries outside of town, sort of like a mini-cruise. I can’t personally vouch for this, but it looks incredible.)
-Go to the Palácio de Cristal. The Palace itself is long gone and replaced by a huge dome structure that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of Porto’s elegantly detailed architecture, but it’s worth it to see this bizarre building firsthand. The gardens surrounding the site span into a lush park with panoramic views of the Douro as well as Porto in its red-roofed majesty. (Remember that park of which I spoke? Yeah, this is the one.)
The local specialty of Porto (in addition to port wine) is a deeply non-vegan dish called Francesinha, which is a square puff pastry filled with two kind of sausages, cheese, baked, then served on a bed of french fries swimming in a vat of melted cheese. I couldn’t look at the picture of it without feeling the ten pound bloat. You can grab one of these at just about any small café crammed into the corners of the city, and usually for less than €3.
Along the Ribeira, many restaurants are meat- and fish-only, offering only scant “salads” consisting of naught but lettuce, tomato, and an onion ring if you’re lucky. But don’t despair! A great deal of places also offer many vegetarian-friendly dishes like pastas, sandwiches, and even some pizzas. Pastelerias line the streets, the windows full of stacks on stacks of pastries and croissants to enjoy along with an espresso or a cappuccino.
Sorry, vegans. We got the short end of the stick here. Usually the only offerings for us that can be widely found in Porto are bread baskets with oil, and maybe some olives if the stars all align just the right way as you stand on one foot balancing your wine bottle on your head. The only things I could find to accommodate the vegan diet every single place I went was coffee and liquor. But we vegans are used to that, and in my honest opinion, that’s not a bad combo…
We’re talking about me, here, though. I will always scavenge for food. I found a lot of places that would cater to a vegan diet for the price of a smile and the batting of eyelashes above eyes of blue. If it worked for abrasive, acerbic me, it had better work for you, too.
INSIDER TIP: I had a lot of trouble finding a grocery store or market on my first couple of days in Porto. Thankfully, there was a small fruit market a block away from the apartment I rented, but I couldn’t find a place to buy the fresh baguettes for which Europe is known. It was really maddening to me and confusing at first, because I began to genuinely wonder what the locals ate. I spoke to a guy who worked for the “Take And Go” shops around town (little holes in buildings lined with vending machines where you literally just buy snacks, drinks, or coffee and go) and he said that on the weekends, most shops are closed. Sure enough, as the days progressed, more and more mini markets emerged from the woodwork of the bars that closed them off beforehand.
Chic Dream–this café was right beneath my apartment and where I had dinner the first night. It was only bread, oil, olives and wine, but an amazing introduction to Porto nonetheless. The staff is incredibly friendly, and the WiFi is free. It’s a restaurant in Portugal that’s trying to be in Italy, causing a merging of food flavors that gives its menu an incredible and original fusion spin.
Bar Ponte Pensil–this al fresco cafe (with some indoor seating, but why would you want it?) is situated right on the Ponte Luís, the main bridge crossing the Douro. The view is spectacular, and so is the sangria. The staff is friendly and accommodating; there’s a few vegetarian options that can easily be made vegan by request. Also, they’re open ’til 2am! And…did I mention that there’s live music every night? The balcony is perfect for watching the boats float by in the breezy sunshine or losing yourself in the lights of the Douro after dark.
Café do Cais Handmade Burgers–a vegan recommending a burger place? Yep. This restaurant is right on the Ribeira’s boardwalk, so it can get a little packed, but it’s worth it. All the burgers appealed to the person I used to be, the person that ate meat like it was the most normal thing in the world for 22 years. And also, they have a vegetarian option! It’s a grilled eggplant, mushroom, and onion blend that has a spiced mayo on the bun but can be requested plain. Their burgers come with fries that are served in a bucket. A bucket, folks. And um, the sangria? It’s that sultry kind of drink that you feel like is just a fruit punch kind of fraud until, out of no where, you’re awash in bleary-minded happiness and you realize that that sangria had a trick or two up its sleeve.
VT–This tapas place is situated along the south bank of the Rio Douro, and this is the place to eat as the sun sets. Vegan and vegetarian tapas are available, as well as a full array of regular-sized dishes for the omnivores and carnivores. And, dare I say it again…sangria. The prices, service, and food is excellent.
The Felafel Place on Avenida dos Aliados–Look guys, I should know the name of this place, but I don’t. And for the life of me, I can’t seem to locate it online either. But those types of places are the best places, I’ve come to realize; the hole-in-the-wall authentic food that doesn’t need some fancy branding or internet exposure because it’s just so delicious, the business thrives without marketing. That’s this place. The menu is full of sandwiches that can be eaten on thick baguettes or made into pressed wraps, and several other meat and cheese dishes. I, however, am always going for the felafel option if that’s an applicable box on a menu. I got a wrap loaded up with tomato, onion, and an Easter-grass amount of lettuce, asking the server to please hold the mayo and he, though speaking only a little more English than I speak Portuguese, understood and obliged! He even translated the menu for me when he saw me aiming my Word Lens app over the words. Beer (Super Bock) is cheaper than water, and it’s pretty good for the Portuguese version of Bud Light. How to find it: spot the swanky-as-all-get-out BBVA building on Aliados to the right of the statue of a guy on a horse in the main plaza. Next, look to the street across and you’ll see a McDonald’s. This restaurant has a red storefront and is sandwiched on the corner between BBVA and McDonald’s.
Majestic Café–Okay, y’all. This is where vegans have to sigh and simply go with the flow. And trust me, it’s a good flow with which to go because I’m 100% serious that every little aspect (except the touristy vibe) about this café was incredibly mind-blowing. This little restaurant is absolutely stunning, from floor to ceiling. Everywhere you look, you’re greeted by some extra little surprise in the walls, on the moulding, within the sheer lining on the columns holding the ceiling up. In a land of Dasani, the Majestic Café ranks in as a San Pellegrino. There’s a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, as well as an Afternoon Tea offering at 17:00 and a full bar available all day, every day. Majestic, indeed. (Get there early to beat the crowd of tourists with cameras hanging around their necks, doors open at 09:30.)
Moustache Coffee House–This is on the other end of the spectrum from the Majestic Café, but just as awesome. Tucked away behind a tourist information station, the Moustache is adorable and makes a mean demitasse of espresso. The décor is very modern–all stark grey and new-age navy–and the vibe is very relaxed, as the owner, Carla, mans the register and espresso station; talking to her customers and laughing with them, generally just enjoying the people she gets to meet. In a world where most of the interactions between customers and people at work are humdrum and halfhearted, speaking with Carla actually made me feel happy in a way that’s really hard to pin down in real life. I felt like we were old friends instead of café owner and patron. Go there for the coffee, go there for the croissants, go there for the conversations with Carla.
I WISH I’D KNOWN
As soon as I came up from the metro, I immediately saw little flag buntings strung through alleys, across balconies. These playful little accents were a constant décor item throughout Porto, waving in the wind all over different terraces and side streets. They gave off a cheeky charm, as if Porto in the summertime were a place of genuine, childlike jubilance: a place to escape the fast-paced confines of adulthood and to kick back and relax in the sunshine.
Finally, I asked a local about the flags, my curiosity getting the better of me. Apparently, they were decorations left over from the São João Festival that takes place every 23 June in a few different parts of Portugal, but is most vibrant in Porto. “The city decorates and then celebrates all night. They go crazy,” she said. When I asked why they were celebrating, she squinted her eyes and smiled skeptically, then replied, “Who needs a reason?!” This lively street festival is, fortunately for those with an affinity for authentic culture, not very widely known outside of Porto, and isn’t inundated with tourists. If you’re looking to experience a realer side of Porto and party like a local, plan your trip in late June.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Porto is literally the cheapest place I’ve ever visited in Europe. And while I haven’t been everywhere, Europe isn’t exactly know for being easy on the wallet. Four euros here, eighteen euros there, it adds up like wildfire. Water is notoriously more expensive than alcohol, and don’t even think about the cushy US comfort of it coming for free with your meal. AND YET, Porto is different. Porto’s economy is, unfortunately, suffering harder than other economic systems across the EU, which translates to cheaper prices for you and me. Too bad, so sad. Case in point: I purchased a four-pack of 1.5L waters for €3. THREE EUROS. I immediately thereafter bought three bananas and a bottle of local wine from the shop next door for a total of €1.86. For less than five euros, I bought enough water to last me my entire trip to Porto, snacks for the snap hunger that seems to befall me at every inopportune twist and turn, and a mental relaxer to coax me into writing something in the park, making for an absolutely splendid afternoon that you just can’t get in the finger-wagging United States. Less. Than. Five. Euros.
And it doesn’t stop there. I regularly ate in cafés, ordering an espresso doppio and sometimes a basket of bread for a mere three or four euros. Tipping isn’t expected, so if you only have a few coins on you, you’re good to to. Even the opulent Majestic Café had prices lower than any other European city would even think to charge their customers.
Forget Paris, Porto is for lovers. The sunsets are an orange creamsicle of pure romance, fading into a robust pink and eventually a conceding periwinkle across the Rio Douro. The weather is perfect year-round in a way that I can’t quite understand except to say that possibly, Porto is just a little pocket of heaven with magic in the air. When you go, expect to fall in love; with the person you brought, with all the decisions in your life that led you there, with the sheer essence of this enchanting little red-roofed town itself.